'He took the watch off in hospital and gave it to me': Paul Newman's daughter sells his Rolex for US$5.5m

Tracey Llewellyn
·10-min read
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward - Getty Images
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward - Getty Images

Now the stuff of horological legend, in November 2017 a Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 6239, rocked the watch world when it sold at Phillips New York for US$17.8m – at the time a world record for a wristwatch (a figure that was surpassed in 2019 when a unique Patek Phillipe Grandmaster Chime sold for US$31m). The watch itself was a well-worn model of a highly covetable ‘Paul Newman’, or exotic dial, Daytona but its phenomenal hammer price came down to one important factor: this was THE ‘Paul Newman’, the watch that was owned by the actor himself and the reason behind the ref. 6239’s ultimate claim to ‘cool’.

And now another Rolex Daytona owned by Paul Newman has been sold by Phillips New York for $4.5m. This time the watch was a Rolex Cosmograph ‘Big Red’ Daytona ref. 6263 – named for the bright red ‘Daytona’ that appears in an extra-large font, over the sub-dial at six o'clock – that was consigned by Newman’s daughter, Claire ‘Clea’ Newman Soderlund.

According to Paul Boutros, Phillips head of watches, Americas: “For so many reasons, this is one of the most important Rolex watches to ever appear on the market. Throughout his lifetime, Paul Newman was photographed wearing a small handful of Rolex Cosmograph Daytona watches.

"Without any doubt, it is this association with Newman that has led to the Rolex Daytona being regarded as possibly the world’s most sought-after wristwatch. Of these, the watch he owned and wore the longest is the present ‘Big Red’ Daytona ref. 6263. The fact that it was consigned directly by Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman’s daughter, Clea, makes its provenance ‘as good as it gets’ and presents a unique opportunity for collectors.”

Paul Newman 'Big Red' - Phillips
Paul Newman 'Big Red' - Phillips

Clea, the youngest of Newman’s six children, vividly remembers when her father gave the watch to her. It was 2008 and they were at the hospital where Newman was receiving treatment for lung cancer. “As with most things with my father there was no ceremony,” says Clea.

“He took the watch off his wrist and gave it to me. I thought he wanted me to look after it for him, as with every other time we came to the hospital. He was there for a check-up and we all thought he was doing well, so I didn’t read anything into it. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll hold it for you,’ but he replied, ‘No, I want you to have it’. We went backwards and forwards maybe three times, but it didn’t occur to me exactly what was going on. It was only much later that I realised the true meaning. [Newman died later that year.]”

The watch was a 25th wedding anniversary gift from Newman’s wife, actress Joanne Woodward, in 1983. Months after receiving it, he gifted his other Daytona to James Cox, the then boyfriend of Clea’s sister Nell, who famously sold the piece in 2017 with the Newman family’s full approval. The marriage was noted in Hollywood for its longevity, with Newman and Woodward remaining together for 50 years until his death in 2008 aged 83. Newman is often quoted as replying to a question on how the marriage survived temptation with the line, “why go out for hamburger when you have steak at home?”.

“Just like my father, my mother wasn’t big on pomp and ceremony. But this watch was significant, a symbol of their love, right down to the simple message on the back: ‘Drive slowly Joanne’. James’s watch was engraved with a similar phrase: ‘Drive carefully Me’.”

Big Red caseback - Phillips
Big Red caseback - Phillips

The watches, while demonstrating Woodward’s excellent taste, were also perfect gifts for Newman. As well as being one of the world’s greatest actors, he was an accomplished racing driver (hence the caseback inscriptions), and the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona is a chronograph made for the track. One of Rolex’s most famous watches, the Daytona, launched in 1963, is today among the most collectible of all timepieces but to Newman his watches were working instruments.

“My father was very understated and respectful of everyone. He was always on time and never wanted other people to waste theirs,” says Clea. “He was so proud of the watch that my mother gave to him and it was a huge part of who he was. He loved that it was so accurate and several times a day he would call 555-1212 [the number for the US version of the Speaking Clock] and would stare at his watch and then slowly smile and say, ‘See, it hasn’t lost a second’. It thrilled him that it was so accurate.”

This fixation on promptness is a compulsion that Clea’s sister Nell also remembers. “He was obsessed with punctuality,” she said in 2017. “He turned it into a game with people. He would look at the watches others were wearing and bet them his was more accurate… He had 555-1212 on speed-dial, and his Rolex would always win.”

Newman and Woodward on track - Getty Images
Newman and Woodward on track - Getty Images

And the precision of the watch is indeed something to be proud of considering the paces it was put through. Although she never paid a huge deal of attention to the watch as an accessory, Clea clearly remembers it being a functional tool and part of Newman’s everyday life. Sharing both his competitive streak and his sense of fearlessness with his daughter, Newman liked to time himself and others on the track with the Rolex, as well as his show-jumping youngest child.

In pictures of Newman racing in the 1970s and 1980s, his watch is often visible – first the ref. 6239 and later the Big Red, but Clea insists that this is not posing, rather he was genuinely using it to time the competition. “When he got the watch, I was about 16 and had just started show-jumping,” she says. “I recall him wearing it most of the time. We both loved sports and competition – anything with horse power. I remember my dad would always time me with his watch and then complain about the official timekeeping clock saying, ‘My watch is more accurate than the board’. When we were at the track it was the same. Dad and I would sit in the pits and he would time the other drivers with the watch.”

Clea and Paul Newman, - Courtesy of Clea Newman
Clea and Paul Newman, - Courtesy of Clea Newman

Clea has worn the watch daily since her father handed it to her 12 years ago – “I used to wear it riding and even fell from a horse while wearing it,” she says, laughing. Undeterred by the value of the original ‘Paul Newman’ Daytona that sold in 2017, she continued to wear the piece. “Even after James sold his for all that money, I still wore mine all the time,” she says. “Mum gave it to dad, and dad gave it to me and it represented an extension of their love and my love for them.”

When she talks about selling it, she becomes thoughtful and slightly hesitant emphasising the personal struggle she experienced. “As children, my siblings and I were brought up to understand and appreciate how lucky we were. My parents said that if you have a good life, then it is important to give back. Seeing what happened in 2020, it just felt like the right time. It was a really hard decision for me, but if I can do something good and give back to organisations that were important to my mother and father then it was the time to do it.”

Newman, Woodward and daughter - Courtesy of Clea Newman
Newman, Woodward and daughter - Courtesy of Clea Newman

Both Newman watches to go to auction caused horological frenzies never before seen, but how would the man himself have felt about the clamour? Laughing, Clea says: “He would be honoured, but he would think it is kind of crazy. It is really wonderful to be appreciated in that way. It shows what a special man he was, remembered equally for his acting and racing, as well as his love for my mother.

“But it was his philanthropic work that was the most important thing to him. My mother, too, brought so much to the table and it was a real treat to grow up in a family like that. My father was born in 1925 and my mother in 1930 so they remembered living through some tough times. It was complicated growing up with famous parents but, where Robert Redford or Sidney Poitier and their families could drop in at any moment, but my mother and father worked hard to keep life as normal as possible. That was their number-one priority and we all felt it, which was a gift.” 

Hole in the Wall Gang Camp - Photo courtesy of SeriousFun Children’s Network
Hole in the Wall Gang Camp - Photo courtesy of SeriousFun Children’s Network

One of the charities closest to Newman’s heart was the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp (named after the gang in 1969’s multi-award-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid), a 300-acre, not-for-profit, summer camp for seriously ill children, that he founded in Connecticut in 1988. From that one camp, there is now a network of 30 around the world coming under the umbrella of SeriousFun, which today Clea is a senior director for. A significant proportion of the proceeds from the sale of the Big Red will go to SeriousFun (as well as Safe Water Network, another cause important to Newman, and other charities). 

“These camps are really special places for kids living with serious illnesses,” says Clea. “The first time I went to one, I was a teenager, and was so nervous. I thought it would be sad but it was the most joyous time –  it is all about inclusion and resilience and everyone from the doctors and volunteers to the kids and families joins in to create a party atmosphere. All of the camps are free and are loving, hopeful places with people from all walks of life all going through the same stuff. Nobody feels different and that was so important to my father.” 

Clea Newman Soderlund - Phillips
Clea Newman Soderlund - Phillips

Clea says that despite the million-plus families that have been helped so far by SeriousFun, there is still work to do and that is the main reason she feels comfortable selling her father's watch. “It is a particularly important object because my mother gave it to him,” she says. “He treasured anything that was from her and he wore it 90 per cent of the time. But, after a lot of soul-searching, I came to terms at the beginning of this year that it was the right time to sell. I absolutely believe he would support my reasons for doing it. I couldn’t go ahead unless I was 100 per cent sure. 

“I am not sure how I will feel when I finally let it go but, to be honest, it’s nice to see how special the watch is to the world and to keep my parents’ love alive. Their relationship was so special and this is a nice way to celebrate it.”

The 'Racing Pulse' auction by Phillips in Association with Bacs & Russo, took place at Phillips New York on 12 December 2020. 

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